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Plastic Jesus

[whitespace] WWJD merchandise
Magali Pirard

A cryptic code is showing up on bracelets, T-shirts, and coffee mugs around the world. Now radical theologians, authors, and thinkers ponder the powerful--and trendy--question "What would Jesus do?"

By David Templeton

PATRICIA LYNN REILLY has just found Jesus. He's hanging from an accessory rack at Claire's Jewelry Store--right between Macy's and Mervyn's--exactly where she was told he'd be. And yes, Jesus does seem a bit out-of-place here in this trendy emporium of bright plastic baubles and bangles, neon-colored hair clips, zodiac necklaces, and yin-yang earrings. Even so, to the countless preteen and teenage girls who routinely spend their allowance in such places, Jesus is all right.

Yes, one could accurately say that Jesus--that 2,000 year-old Galilean rabble-rouser whose name we associate mainly with certain religions, or as a substitute for a four-letter word after smashing our thumb in a door--is suddenly very much in fashion. Literally.

Thanks to a phenomenal 9-year-old marketing campaign that some claim is more like a full-on social movement, the name Jesus is now on the lips, shirts, and shoelaces of millions--Christian and non-Christian alike, many of them under 21--all across the country.

It's still a four-letter word, though, and the word is WWJD, an acronym for "What Would Jesus Do?" Its cryptic appearance on everything from bracelets to bluejeans has been called by some a right-wing fundamentalist conspiracy to sneak religious values onto campuses under the wire of church-and-state-separation laws. Others view it simply as a youthful, grassroots movement underscoring an increased desire among young people to embrace some positive social values or as a sneaky way for proselytizing Christians to provoke strangers to ask them about the mysterious initials.

Still others see it mainly as a crass, capitalistic commercialization of a harmlessly innocent philosophical ideal.

It is no doubt a little of each.

But whatever else it may turn out to be, one thing Patricia Lynn Reilly agrees with is that "What would Jesus do?" is a powerful and fascinating question.

A best-selling author and renowned feminist theologian, she's recently caught wind of this curious movement and has ventured from her coastal home in Sea Ranch to the Santa Rosa Plaza to investigate. Her 1996 book, A God Who Looks Like Me, challenged the male-dominated ideology of Judeo-Christian faiths and invited women to embrace female images of spirituality. Reilly's latest book, Be Full of Yourself, is a provocative reclamation of the image of Eve, presented as a role model for women who, like Reilly--Catholic-raised, later a born-again Christian--were initially trained to suppress all of their innate, life-affirming, apple-biting impulses.

"What would Jesus do?" reads Reilly, standing before the conspicuous WWJD rack festooned with rainbow-colored bracelets, rings, earrings, necklaces, buttons, bumper stickers, key chains, notebooks, pencils, pens, and temporary tattoos, all bearing the acronym.

"'Sex? Drugs? Gangs?'" Reilly reads aloud from a little card attached to one WWJD necklace, continuing as the card ends, in bigger letters, "'What Would Jesus Do?'"

"Hmmmmm," she adds, narrowing her eyes and flipping the card over in search of more information. "Is there some curriculum that supports this stuff?" she wonders, glancing around for someone to ask. "It really does look like some sort of evangelical tool to me. It reminds me of when I was a born-again Christian and we all had bright red Bible covers so that people would ask us about it.

"Who's buying the WWJD items?" she asks Sindy Bryant, the store manager, stationed at the cash register.

"Teenage girls, lots of them," Sindy replies. "It's a lot more popular than I ever would have expected."

"Are they mostly Christians?" Reilly wonders.

"Some of them, apparently," she's told. "But it's not just about Jesus with a lot of them. They just like it. When someone asks what it means, and I tell them it's meant as a personal reminder to stop for a second before making a decision, to second-guess their actions before leaping into something, they just get it. They understand that Jesus sort of stands for being a good person."

Reilly likes what she's hearing.

"Jesus is a universal symbol," she nods, turning back to pick through the necklaces, "though fundamentalists have sort of co-opted him for their own purposes. I think it's important to keep reclaiming Jesus from the jaws of the religious right.

"Maybe WWJD is helping to do that."

WWJD certainly was intended as a way to introduce Jesus to others," affirms Kenn Freestone of Lesco Co., the Michigan-based manufacturer--specializing in promotional items such as golf balls and T-shirts with company logos--that first began distributing WWJD bracelets in 1989.

"It was a Christian Youth group at a local Presbyterian church that came up with the idea of WWJD buttons, and then bracelets, and they brought it to me," explains Freestone, who now heads Lesco's multimillion-dollar WWJD division.

The youth group had been inspired by Charles Sheldon's classic 1896 book, In His Steps. The once- controversial book tells the story of a church whose members turn their backs on a homeless stranger, only to be chastised by the man for not living their lives according to the example of Jesus. When the stranger drops dead, they are deeply ashamed, and vow that for one full year they will make no decision without first asking themselves, "What would Jesus do?"

"The bracelets were intended to be a daily reminder," Freestone says, "but they were also meant to provoke questions from others. I did think it was a good message, so I proposed that we take the idea further and try to promote the bracelets elsewhere."

Still, it wasn't until two years ago--when syndicated radio pundit Paul Harvey began extolling the virtues of WWJD on the air--that Lesco found itself in possession of a certified national trend, and sales began expanding. Last year alone the company sold over 15 million WWJD items. Interactive websites (www.wwjd.com and www.whatwouldjesusdo.com are just two) began popping up all over the Internet, as other companies began putting out their own versions, expanding the scope with T-shirts, baseball caps, watches, board games, and books. A recently released CD of Christian music--titled What Would Jesus Do?, it comes complete with a WWJD bracelet--quickly made it onto Billboard's Top 200 pop albums list. And a couple of months ago, Spin magazine spoofed the trend in a "Gen-X Jesus goes to the Big City" fashion spread.

Shortly after Wal-Mart began selling the products, WWJD entered the mainstream, and Claire's Jewelry, a vast national chain of mall-based stores, began introducing a few items, only to expand their inventory when sales took off.

"Our chairman is fond of saying, 'We don't decide what to put in our stores. Our customers tell us what to put in our stores,'" explains Glenn Canary, an executive investment manager with Claire's Jewelry Inc. "It's literally true that we got into the WWJD stuff because the kids kept coming in asking for it. If kids want to buy it, we'd be dumb not to have it."

The merchandise is also available through the chain's other stores, such as Icings and Mr. Rags. Now Hallmark Cards stores are preparing to offer WWJD merchandise as well.

As countless Christian organizations have taken advantage of the movement to put across their own agendas--thus the "don't do drugs, don't have sex" angle that accompanies some of the marketing-- non-Christians have found their own way to participate.

Alternate meanings for the enigmatic initials are often given by those wearing the doodads: We Want James Dean. We Want Jelly Donuts. Why Waste Jack Daniels?

To basketball-loving junior high schooler Eric Dozier of Santa Rosa, the bracelet he wears means, "What would [Michael] Jordan do?," whereas his sister Amanda prefers to observe the intended meaning as she wears her own bracelet.

Though sales have slowed slightly, most retailers claim that it's unlikely the fad will fade anytime soon.

"It's amazing," glows Freestone. "I've talked to storeowners. I've talked to pastors of churches and youth groups, and everyone else. Everybody says that WWJD looks like a trend that isn't going to go away."

IF FREESTONE'S optimism pans out, there will soon be enough WWJD bracelets and pendants in the stores to fit the wrists and necks of every high schooler and college student in America. But is WWJD merely the pet rock and mood ring of the late '90s? Or is it more than a fad? Certainly, WWJD is separated from those other crazes by that simple, overtly introspective, potentially life-changing little question that started it all.

What exactly would Jesus do in today's complex world? And how valid a question is it for enlightened, modern earth-dwellers, anyway?

"Well, are we talking about the historical Jesus or the religious Jesus?" wonders philosopher Sam Keen of Sonoma. "Jesus could be a very good role model for young people. Who else have they got? Leonardo DiCaprio? I'd rather have people asking 'What would Jesus do?' than 'What would Leonardo do?'"

Keen, author of Fire in the Belly, Hymns to an Unknown God and To Love and Be Loved, admits that when he first saw a WWJD bracelet, he was amused. "I said, 'What does that mean? World-Wide Juvenile Delinquent?'

"What you have to remember in looking at someone like Jesus, or the Buddha, and questioning what they would have done in a particular situation, is that they themselves were separate from the religion that came to be based on them. Buddha wasn't a Buddhist. And Jesus," he laughs, "was certainly not a Christian. At least not in the way we think of Christianity today."

So what do Christians say Jesus would do?A quick scan of all the related websites and the various books devoted to the matter reveal a disturbing, unflinchingly fundamentalist consensus: that Jesus would do what he was told to do.

One anonymous contributor, identified only as a non-denominational minister, writes on one WWJD message board, "Jesus always did his father's will. Instead of asking, 'What would Jesus do?' we should ask, 'What is God's will for me?' It's always the same answer."

"Oh, yuck!" shouts musician Marsha Stevens, upon hearing that last quote. "That's terrible. That's exactly what turns so many people off Jesus. What I immediately liked about the bracelets when they first came out was that they said, specifically, 'What would Jesus do? Not what the church tells you to do."

Stevens, a co-founder and former member of the seminal Christian rock band Children of the Day, authored the song "For Those Tears I Died," a staple in non-denominational churches. After announcing her long-secretive lesbianism, she was given the heave-ho from her church and the band. Still actively Christian, Stevens has since created Balm Ministries, a musical outreach of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. She now lives out of a motor home--traveling, recording, and performing contemporary Christian music for the gay and lesbian community.

"My bracelet is gold and engraved with WWJD," she happily reports. "And my partner Suzanne's bracelet is silver. We had them made for each other about a year ago."

After listening to a joke about a fundamentalist conspiracy that is using WWJD to put over its own dogmatic agenda, Stevens laughs.

"I think there is [one]," she replies. "I do a lot of radio interviews because of my music, and a lot of people say, 'Gosh! You seem like such a loving, talented lesbian. What do you want to be a Christian for?'

"And I tell them, 'I think there's been an identity theft. Like on the Internet when someone steals your credit card number.' Look at who Jesus was. Look at what he did. The fundamentalists have turned Jesus into a pharisee."

For Stevens, asking "What would Jesus do?" is no recent development. "I knew Sheldon's book growing up," she says. "When my father was a young pastor, one of the things he did at a church he started in Paso Robles was to have a guy dress up like a drunk and stumble into the church and try to sit next to people. He had it all set up that when the guy finally went back outside--and of course everyone inside had been trying to get away from him--he would suddenly keel over on the steps of the church. Then a policeman would run his siren outside, everyone would come out, and there was this guy--dead.

"So my dad would call everyone back inside and give a sermon about what Jesus would have done," she laughs. "It was great."

LIVING BY JESUS' example isn't all sacrifice and suffering, Stevens points out, adding that following his lead has made her a better person. "Sometimes, anyway," she laughs. "I try to think of what Jesus would do in the real-life, nitty-gritty situations that I don't always handle so well. I think of him when I want to yell at the waitress for bringing the wrong food choice three times in a row, or when the mechanic has just lied to me about what's wrong with my motorhome.

"WWJD, for me, isn't just about huge, life-changing choices," Stevens adds. "It's about remembering Jesus in the little things."

Muses author Reynolds Price: "In all of ancient literature, there doesn't seem to be any other human being, that I'm aware of, who had the degree of openness that Jesus had. Jesus is the most fascinating figure in history."

Price is the 1996 award-winning author of The Three Gospels, his careful translation of the Gospels of Mark and John, along with his own version, titled "An Honest Account of a Memorable Life." Fond of calling himself "an outlaw Christian," Price observes, "Asking 'What would Jesus do?' is a very loaded question. If Jesus wasn't an outlaw, what the hell else was he?

"The fact that all the Gospels affirm that Jesus was very available to all sorts of outsiders within his own culture," Price adds, "strongly seems to suggest that he was not a big condemner of anybody."

As for Jesus being a role model of abstinence and sobriety, which the WWJD movement seems to take as a given, Price points to the tale of the wedding feast in Canaan, when Jesus turned water into wine in order to keep the party going. As for sex ... , "Jesus says almost nothing about sex," Price observes. "Christianity's obsession with sex comes almost entirely from [the disciple] Paul, not Jesus.

"I think the more we go into the question of 'Who actually was this guy from Nazareth--as opposed to the guy up on the dome of St. Peter's,' then I think the WWJD question becomes even more mysterious."

"You could do a hell of a lot worse than Jesus as a role model," remarks novelist Nicholas Baker. An admitted atheist, the esteemed author of Vox and The Everlasting Story of Nory--works that keenly examine facets of the human condition--routinely says grace with his family at dinnertime. "I have no objection to asking what Jesus would do at all. I think it's great. I think that any reminder of a life of good intentions is valuable to a kid.

"I can't stand those TV preachers," he adds. "But I'm always very moved by the specific stories of Jesus' generosity. I love hearing about generosity. Tell me more about generosity! It doesn't seem like there are enough models for generosity extant right now.

"Microsoft is just not a very good model," Baker laughs.

Dr. Robert Funk, the author of Honest to Jesus and the just-released Acts of Jesus, and the founder of the Santa Rosa-based Westar Institute (which each year hosts a controversial international "think tank" known as the Jesus Seminar), finds WWJD an intriguing notion. Devoted to separating the historical Jesus from the iconic Jesus, the seminar studies the Gospels to determine which acts and sayings Jesus may have actually been responsible for and which were added or revised years later by the early fathers of the church.

Seated in Westar's large library, Funk carefully examines a brand-new WWJD bracelet. "Well," he says, fingering the letters, "it's not a bad question, 'What would Jesus do?' It's just a tough question, and these people seem to be making it too easy by reducing it simply to choices about drugs and sex. They probably won't cite texts from the New Testament that show Jesus was perceived at that time as being a drunkard and a glutton," Funk suggests. "That was their perception of him, though it doesn't tell us anything about the alcohol content of his blood. But what it does tell us is that Jesus was a guy who went to a lot of parties. Who drank wine. And who shared his table with anyone who would sit with him."

So Jesus was an open-minded guy? He pushed the envelope a little on the social mores of his time? "Very much so," Funk nods. "Jesus was the ultimate barrier breaker. The kingdom of God, as he envisioned it, had no social barriers. He said, 'Love your enemies!' He deliberately associated with the riffraff of society."

Jesus, of course, would have given to the poor, right?

"Well, he was one of them," laughs Funk. "He was homeless. He never had much, but he shared what he had and trusted God to provide for the next day.

"A good role model," he adds, "is somebody who can look up and see the larger issues of life, and be willing to sacrifice oneself to those larger issues. That kind of selflessness is worthy of emulation. Along with Jesus, I'd place Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Socrates--but it's interesting to notice how many of these people were martyred.

"People of this sort, people who are so utterly good and so utterly self-transcendant, seem to be a threat to the rest of us."

Katherine Neville of West Virginia--the best-selling author of the metaphysical adventure novels, The Eight and The Magic Circle, the latter beginning in Jerusalem during Jesus' last week on Earth--echoes Funk's sentiments about the selflessness of Jesus.

"If we were being absolutely faithful to Jesus' example," she muses, "we'd have to give up all our possessions and put on sackcloth and sandals. That's what Jesus did. He was very specific about what clothes and what possessions people could take with them when they followed him on the road.

"And of course he'd say, 'Go out and speak the truth. Help other people.' So from that standpoint, sure, Jesus was a great example, but that seems to have nothing to do with this lengthy list of possessions you can now buy to remind you to ask what Jesus would do. Bracelets, watches, coffee mugs, CDs--Jesus would say, give all that away!"

BACK AT the mall, Patricia Lynn Reilly is ready to leave. "What I'd like to know," she says, "is why all this focus on young women? I think it's the guys who should be asking, 'What would Jesus do?' Think about it: There's not one sexist encounter with Jesus recorded in the New Testament. His whole relationship with women was very powerful. In a society that rejected women, he treated them with respect and honor."

She pauses in the middle of the mall, standing to gaze at the swirl of people gliding in and out around her. "I think it's important for folks to support WWJD," she concludes. "But it's also important to crack open our perceptions of who Jesus really was. It's a good message ... to use that pause before making decisions, to ask a question of ourselves. In this age, that pause is essential. I only hope we can move past wondering what Jesus would do, though, and someday be able to ask, 'What does my own inner wisdom suggest that I do?'

"Unfortunately," she laughs, "that's not very marketable, is it?"

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From the June 11-17, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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